Shawn Mendes Aims High (Sometimes Too High) With ‘Wonder’: Album Review

Since Canadian singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes first rose to fame as a 14-year-old with a series of covers on Twitter’s Vine app — for those who don’t remember, it was the six-second predecessor to TikTok — he and his team have worked doggedly to position him as a career artist, focused on longevity and maturity rather than the perishable celebrity such status might suggest. They’ve long since succeeded in that mission: He’s now in the position of being a world-famous veteran musician who has released a series of increasingly elaborate albums, headlined arenas and scored No. 1 singles across the globe, all by the ripe old age of 22.

The challenge with such success is where it leaves for a young artist to go, especially in the context of the rock-leaning pop sound he’s purveyed to date. All of the above factors, along with the nearly two and a half years since the release of his third studio album — which, by its eponymous title, signaled a new beginning — imply some soul-searching as well, pandemic-related and otherwise.

His new collection, “Wonder,” finds a number of dynamics playing out. Mendes’ singing style remains the kind of breathy, über-sensitive tenor, with frequent flips into falsetto, that he’s helped to make one of the defining sounds of this era, although he shows off his range here on the soaring “Song for No One.” The album also dispenses with the star features and collaborations of its predecessor, apart from a duet with Justin Bieber and a pair of songs with producer Frank Dukes (Camila Cabello, Post Malone). Instead, Mendes and his long-standing core team of producers-songwriters (Scott Harris, Nate Mercereau and Kid Harpoon, the latter of whom cowrote two hits on Harry Styles’ latest album) pull out all the stops to diversify and dramatize his sound — with big choruses, lush arrangements and momentous fanfares that drop down to a whisper — while remaining firmly rooted in the pop genre.

Case in point is the record’s towering introduction, which swells, overture-like, with orchestral synthesizers before stopping abruptly and shifting directly into the angelic massed choir of the title track. “Wonder” acts as a preview of a template often used on the album: songs that open with poignant-sounding, spare keyboards and lyrics conveying emotions on top of emotions.

After that song whooshes to a crescendo, the album trades off between upbeat, Timberlake-ian tracks like “Teach Me How to Love” and the yearning “Dream About You” and somber, softer ballads. There are songs about love (and presumably his paramour Cabello) and partying, but there’s also an introspection that began with his last release and, intensified by lockdown, is more prominent here. Most effective is “Call My Friends,” which finds Mendes lamenting the teen years he gave up to become a star: “Right now I’m alone inside the airport / And you’re all at a bar in our hometown. … The music’s loud and everybody’s dancing / How many nights I’ve missed, I’ve lost count.”

Less convincing, however, is “Monster,” his Dukes-helmed duet with Bieber. While the song is a slinking mid-tempo groove, the lyrics are essentially a treatise on the tribulations of being young, ambitious and famous. “You put me on a pedestal and tell me I’m the best. … Fill me up with confidence, I say what’s in my chest / Spill my words and tear me down until there’s nothing left.” Coming from two superstars, a perspective that would have seemed self-pitying at best before 2020 feels tone-deaf now.

In a smart bit of sequencing, that song is followed by the most lighthearted one on the album, “305,” which features a bouncing tempo and a skipping lilt of a melody; the title references a sleepless hour of the morning but also the area code of Cabello’s home city, Miami. From there, the album cruises to its conclusion, closing with a short acoustic number that ends on a human, intimate note. And while “Wonder” is at times overambitious and overwrought, it does feel like the last stop on a particular journey. Mendes can’t sound much bigger than this without going full Adele, so what might come next is wide open.

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